The Havana theater company Teatro El Publico on Thursday will open the Miami run of a play about the strange horrors and insidious dangers of living under a dictator. The tyrant censures and murders those who disagree with him, forces others into terrible moral compromises and seems as if he will live forever.
As contemporary as the scenario sounds, especially in Miami’s exile community, the play was written 70 years ago by a French existentialist about an ancient Roman ruler.
Albert Camus wrote Caligula over the course of World War II, basing it on tales of the first century ruler said to have engaged in a random spree of torture, rape and murder and to have destroyed Rome’s economy and system of justice.
When it premiered in 1945, many saw it as a representation of Hitler and Mussolini. Since then, Caligula has become an emblem of the terror engendered by fascistic rulers from Idi Amin to Saddam Hussein.
Teatro El Publico’s director, Carlos Diaz, calls Caligula a masterpiece that remains universally relevant.
“I believe I am faced with a text that will never die,” Diaz says from the troupe’s Havana home at the Trianon theater.
“I believe that it has a profound contemporary connection, because although we think that evil can disappear, it makes you realize that evil is always alive.”
The play is being performed in Miami as part of the third Out in the Tropics Festival, produced by Fundarte, whose director, Ever Chavez, was the producer at Teatro El Publico when it first mounted Caligula in 1996. (The company’s brilliant The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, with male actors in drag playing the lesbian lovers of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cult-film original, was a highlight of the 2010 Out in the Tropics.)
With original music, set and costume design, some of the island’s best actors and themes that resonated profoundly as Cuba emerged from the economic chaos of the “special period,” Caligula was one of the troupe’s greatest successes. It played Havana for two months before going on to Brazil and a critically acclaimed two-year tour in Spain.
Though the production was faithful to Camus’ text and made no overt references to Cuba, Chavez says the connections were clear.
“It represented the contemporary face of what was happening in Cuba, not only in terms of a totalitarian government, but also in how people react to that kind of government,” he says.
The connections derive from Camus’ insights into the dynamics of absolute power and the morally destructive compromises people make to survive.
In the play, Caligula is driven mad by the death of his sister/lover, and becomes obsessed with possessing the moon. Convinced that life is meaningless, and abetted by the militaristic Helikon, the emperor embarks on a terrifyingly random course of destruction. He closes granaries to create famine, rapes and murders the family members of patrician leaders and declares himself a god.
In one scene, Caligula commands Roman senators to improvise poems about the meaning of death, but cuts off and murders everyone but Scipio, a young poet whom he loves. Repulsed, Scipio rejects him and announces that he’s leaving.
“Scipio reaches a moment when he decides to abandon Caligula, abandon this reality and go far away,” Diaz says. “He doesn’t want to be responsible for everything that’s happening.”
That scene had an extra dimension of meaning on the island, says Chavez. “Caligula doesn’t let anyone talk, he cuts them off, so in Cuba, where there is no freedom of speech, people got all excited,” he says.
Scipio’s departure has a poignant implication for a country that has seen generations of its people go into exile. “In Cuba if you say someone is leaving, they’re leaving forever,” Chavez says. “They cannot come back.”
Staging and costumes underline the contemporary connections. At one point actors march waving red flags and chanting Caligula’s name. Helikon wears tall black boots and a braid-encrusted uniform. One of Cuba’s leading actors, Broselianda Hernandez, plays Scipio, the male poet who inflames Caligula’s desire — a gender-bending twist that adds to the disorientation of Caligula’s world.
By telling the story of an insular society torn apart by the crazed exercise of absolute power, Caligula held up a mirror to Cuba that showed citizens chafing at the island’s system that they were neither crazy nor alone.
“In a society where people cannot talk freely about what is happening and surrounding them, when they watch a play that tells them about their reality in a non-obvious way, through the art — people went crazy,” Chavez says.
And yet Diaz insists that Caligula’s meaning extends far beyond Cuba.
“The story has points of connection with all the eras of humanity,” he says. “It goes through all the ways of power in the history of humanity.
“It would be very reductive, to think of ourselves and nothing else. … We want to amplify the reality that sometimes power is not used well.”
Chavez agrees with his former colleague.
“Carlos Diaz always said that if you reduced Camus’ play to the Cuban situation you reduce the play,” he says. “There are many readings. And people will draw their own conclusions.”